It’s time to change the discussion about women in business


by Jennie Algie, head of people development, Merchants

It’s the old story: If we keep doing things the same way, we’ll keep getting the same lack of women in all areas of business

It’s troubling that in debates about women in business, as in human resources in general, the same issues have been coming up for more than a decade. And, yes, while organisations are reporting a gradual improvement in the numbers of women employed, the basic conversation hasn’t moved on a great deal from the simple question of how to get an equitable balance between the numbers of men and women in the workforce. It really is time to tackle things from a different perspective.

Whether one talks about women in business in general or in the specific disciplines of recruitment, training, coaching, and mentoring, one is always dealing with two basic HR issues.

The first is the fact that, decades on, HR is still trying to find a place at the boardroom table. So it has no capacity to inform organisational strategy. It remains a servant of the strategy. It cannot, therefore, make gender equality an organisational priority.

Secondly, whether or not it has any influence in the boardroom, HR is still making decisions in isolation from the needs and realities of the communities from which it must draw employees.

Relevance and consequences

 

The mining sector is a case in point. In a legitimate attempt to obviate the many historic and practical problems of hostel living, migrant workers are being given living allowances that enable them to take up residence in surrounding towns. In too many cases, this leads to workers acquiring second families in the towns and a reduction in the amount of money that goes back to the original families in rural areas. As they struggle to afford both families, workers take loans from micro lenders that they simply cannot repay. This has a negative impact on each of the families and, of course, on the economy as a whole.

 

It also affects the ability of girls and women in both sets of families to acquire education and, therefore, to enter the workforce in any capacity other than manual labour.

 

As another example, most recruitment is done through agencies. But, the society for which that kind of methodology worked no longer exists today. Most South Africans are not known to recruitment agencies. Job specifications are not designed to explore the possibilities of untrained talent. And, most South Africans have no idea that recruitment agencies exist or how to avail themselves of their services, assuming they fit into the job specs.

 

In other words, conventional recruitment processes are self-limiting, self-defeating, and the antithesis of transformation. It’s simply not possible to train, mentor, or coach anything approximating a representative sample of unemployed South Africans using these approaches.

 

In this context, HR in South Africa is so insular it’s almost entirely irrelevant to society.

 

What HR practitioners should be doing is extending their reach and influence by working with schools, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and other organisations’ corporate social responsibility (CSI) programmes. They’re a vast reservoir of education, training, mentoring, and coaching resources. They’re an ideal feeder system for the workplace.

 

While we’re exploding myths, let’s discard another corporate folly: the insistence on matric as a basic qualification. Reliable research has shown that matric is not a determinant of success. So, why are we not working on ways to recruit without it and, thereby, expand our recruitment options? We’re going to mentor and coach anyway. Why not do it in a way that brings into the workplace women and young people who are hungry for the opportunity?

 

The contact centre is a good example of this type of conversion of potential into strong career paths. While most young people enter the contact centre industry as a stepping stone after leaving school or another tertiary institution, a surprising number move up the ranks to high level positions within the contact centre operator’s business. So, contact centres are not only powerful tools for reducing youth unemployment in South Africa, they are also catalysts for personal and therefore overall economic growth. Other industries could play a similar role.

 

Internal recruitment is another very effective way of fast-tracking transformation. If people within your organisation recommend for jobs people they know, the chances of your getting a close culture fit from the recommended person are high. And, as long as the person doing the recommendation is not involved in the actual recruitment process, you’re assured of a high level of objectivity in the process – and a high level of commitment and loyalty not only in the new recruit but in the employee who made the recommendation. Apart from the other considerable advantages internal recruitment confers, it’s also a powerful morale and team builder.

 

The point being that HR should not only manage HR, but be an architect of processes and programmes that will ensure that the company and society transform each other in mutually beneficial ways. Then, the hackneyed and, as we’ve seen by now, unproductive discussions about women in business that have taken place until now will fall away. If an organisation’s HR is attuned to the realities of the society within which it operates, then gender equality will happen automatically. Not because it’s legislated, but because it works.

 


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